Genetic Culture:

The Primacy of

the Affective over the Cognitive

Dr. Leon James
Dr. Diane Nahl
(c) 1982-1999

This is a working paper that we have been extending and restructuring for several years.  It will no doubt continue on this developmental process for a few more years!

The Argument

In psychology there is an important debate that has not yet been resolved by generations of researchers. This is the question whether the affective or the cognitive is primary.

To say that the affective is primary is to say that feelings cause thoughts. Or, that feelings direct thoughts. Or, that thoughts are from feelings. Or, first there is a feeling -- then there is a thought. Etc.

To say that the cognitive is primary is to say that thoughts cause feelings. Or, that thoughts direct feelings. Or, that feelings are from thoughts . Or, first there is a thought -- then there is a feeling. Etc.

It is easy to see why some psychologists say that feelings are from thoughts. This is exactly what it looks like to external observation. For instance, we can observe ourselves get angry when we recall an unpleasant situation. It seems then that first, the unpleasant thought comes into our awareness, second, we react to it emotionally. Or, in another situation, we ask someone to explain why an action and the person replies "I thought he was picking on me, so I felt bad and left." It seems here that, first the person has a thought or conclusion ("he is picking on me"), and second, an affective reaction ("so I felt bad").

Swedenborg refers to this appearance of the cognitive being primary as the Jacob and Esau story. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Jacob and Esau were twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was positioned to be born first, but at the last moment, Jacob displaced him and was born first. In the language of spiritual-natural correspondences, all names, objects, and events have reference to the mind or spirit. Jacob always refers to the cognitive and Esau to the affective. The significance of this historical episode, as analyzed by Swedenborg, is that the affective (Esau) is primary in reality, but in appearance, as viewed externally, the cognitive (Jacob) is seen first.

The drama of Jacob scrambling to come out ahead of Esau represents the battle we have in becoming wise and loving adults. As children, we begin life in apparent innocence. We are lovable and attractive affective (right-brained) creatures. Our appeal as infants lies in the fact that we are happy to obey the wisdom (or cognitive) of the adults and authority figures. With an immature cognitive, an infant has no other choice but to obey the rule of authority, and their willingness to do so (affective) makes them irresistible to most parents and adults.

Things begin to go wrong at around the age of 7 or 8, when the permanent "adult" teeth push their way out, and the young individual begins a life of cognitive independence. Now the child suddenly changes interaction styles and begins to act like "I'm in business for myself now." It ushers in the age of arguments. For a young mind, this developmental phase begins the Golden Age of the Cognitive. The mind's computing power grows at a dizzying rate. The cognitive soars into the stratosphere of self-reliance and becomes rebellious to authority, disdainful of tradition, and fills itself with fake sentiments of grandeur or dejection. It is the period of Jacob setting forth in life and doing his thing no matter who gets stepped on. In human development, the cognitive appears to be first. But this is an illusion, like the appearance that the sun moves around us instead of the other way round. It is a characteristic of the mind that thoughts are more visible to our awareness than feelings. We are expected to know what we are thinking about something (that's part of one's IQ), but only mature well-put together people know how they feel about many things. When we act like thoughts precede feelings, that is, when feelings remain invisible in the background, we operating in full or partial blindness.

This state of mind and character is represented by the wily Jacob who maneuvers himself to come out of the birth canal first, talks Esau out of his birth right, deceives his old father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau, enriches himself at the expense of his uncle Lavan who hires him to tend his flock, and so on. But in the end, reality prevails. In adult life, Jacob fears Esau, humbles himself before him and calls him "My Lord." This is the recognition of the cognitive that the affective is in reality primary.

What about the appearances? The famous James-Lange theory of emotions says that first, we see a bear, then we decide it is dangerous, as a result of which our adrenaline begins to pump, which we then sense in our body, which feels like fear, and that finally makes us run away. The sequence seems to be:

The Apparent (not Real) Sequence

external stimulus ----->cognitive interpretation----->physiological response----->sensing physiological response----->affective state----->sensorimotor act

Without prejudice, let us try to accept the other model, namely where the affective is primary, and see if we can give a rational account of events as we can observe them. We see a bear. Assuming it is unexpected and unchained, we become aware of our thoughts -- "what's it doing here; it's unchained; it's mad; it's gonna get me, etc." In fact however, the sight of the bear instantly arouses the affective, whose explosive activity gives rise to these various thoughts. This scenario requires the assumption that the affective is faster, more differentiated, more integrated, and less visible to awareness than the cognitive.

The Real (not Apparent) Sequence

external stimulus ----->differentiated affective states----->congruent cognitive interpretations----->physiological responses----->sensing physiological responses----->sensorimotor acts

Thus, in reality differentiated affective states pre-exist as person variables and these are selectively OCCASIONED under appropriate sensory input.   Once these affective states are selected or occasioned, it selects from the available cognitive hierarchies and items that are CONGRUENT with the already existing affective states.  These congruent cognnitive interpretations or understandings or meanings (powered from within by the affective state), THEN elicit specific physiological responses that one can sense through feedback and they alos come out into overt action (senorimotor acts) unless inhibited by contrary or ambivalent affective states that are unconsciously occasioned by the same sensory input.  These unconscious affective-sensorimotor connections are established as part of the individual's ontogeny and cultural experiences.

The sequence affective--->cognitive--->sensorimotor is found everywhere in Swedenborg's writings, as in the following samples:

Love Wisdom Use
Good Truth Appearance
Will Understanding Action
Intention Plan Execution
Source Cause Effect
Desire Belief Conduct
Spiritual Intellectual Sensual
Feeling Thinking Sensing

Swedenborg was always meticulous in respecting the primacy of the affective. In the paragraph quoted above (DLW 384), the following stands out:

Moreover, the brain itself is divided into two hemispheres, the heart into two ventricles, and the lungs into two lobes; the right of all these having relation to the good of truth, and the left to the truth of good, or, what is the same, the right having relation to the good of love from which is the truth of wisdom, and the left having relation to the truth of wisdom which is from the good of love.

Note his care with the expressions "the good of truth" and "the truth of good." First, he specifies that "the good of truth" (right brain) is the same as "the good of love from which is the truth of wisdom." Translating, we have "the affective of the cognitive" = "the affective from which is the cognitive." It is thus explicitly stated that the cognitive is from the affective. The affective is primary. Second, it is specified that "the truth of good" (left brain) is the same as "the truth of wisdom which is from the good of love." Once again the directionality is strictly maintained: the cognitive (truth or wisdom) is from the affective (good or love).   There are many more such passages, as discussed in this entry.

Genetic Culture

The unconscious connections between the affective states and their sensorimotor instantiations are established by two human growth mechanisms where the cognitive is as-if bypassed, and feelings or emotions trigger sensations and acts that remain unconscious to the individual, but is visible to others.   One is the formation of basic personality habits, moods, and temperaments in childhood prior to the talking phase or not much further beyond (up to age 4 on the average).  The other is from automaticity of habits that were conscious in their formation and early use, but sunk into the unconscious due to cessation of conscious monitoring.  Examples are:

As individuals mature over the decades, a series of sensorimotor instantiations are triggered in relation to sequence and biographical teleology or spiritual fate known to God who directs the progression in its least details.   without this divine intelligent and purposive management, the teleology would be impossible and the entire scheme would be sytematically downgraded by the second universal law of thermodynamics (chaos).  But the opposite actually takes place:  less chaos, more order towards an ideal goal or end.  This end has been revealed to us by God--see my article on dualism in science.

This process of unconscious, sequenced, and ethnic sensorimotor instantiations can be called GENETIC CULTURE.  Objective methods of investigating genetic culture include:

self-witnessing methods involving

community-classroom methods involving

methods of community cataloguing practices involving

See also this statement:

Effects of Mere Exposure:  a Comment on Zajonc's Attitudinal Enhancement Hypothesis

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